Getting to Know Philly
With all due respect to the Liberty Bell, Betsy Ross and Founding Fathers, I promise to avoid as much patriotic wordplay as possible and to limit philosophical references to democracy, liberty and freedom to a minimum, as well as ignore any impulses to allegorize eagles, torches and bells in any way. I didn’t come to Philadelphia to do that. Actually, I didn’t come to Philadelphia to do anything. But this is what I did.
Sometimes I am an odd traveler who wanders silently about places at peculiar times studiously observing nothing specific at all. I don’t take pictures but my mind records the local drama unfolding before my eyes, doomed to forget more than it remembers.
And if you’re now pondering the sad logic behind that behavior by asking, “Well, what the fuck is the point of that?” then the glib answer is, “Sorry, no point at all, carry on then.” And the long answer is walk with me a few blocks. I‘m sure to rustle up a point somewhere, maybe a chair in an antique store window or the font on a passing municipal bus, or the warm gaze of local beauty may trigger it, and, voila, an anecdote will emerge that may or not have meaning in your life and mine. Depends on you as much as me.
Tourists, are sometimes like ghosts. Haunting their way through cities, arguably inconsequential and barely visible. Phantasmic, you didn’t see me in Philadelphia from December 17 – 19, 2008, but maybe you did.
You looked up from your laptop in a café on 9th Street wearing smart, black iron-rimmed glasses as I walked by on soggy, leave covered streets wondering if you were more likely an artist or an academic – I think academic – while you quickly looked me over during the brief moments our non-encounter allowed us.
You saw me (to later forget) and groaned “Fucking faaagots…” as I strolled down Market Street towards the train station with a friend, the two of us by chance wearing red jackets, his checkered flannel, mine brick nylon – is that why you think we’re gay? But, damn, dawg, not to mention what you were wearing, for reals.
An accidental stroll down 9th Street brought me to Philadelphia’s Italian Market, the oldest outdoor working market in the whole of the US. An ambitious appetite, emboldened by a meandering crosstown walk, decided that moment was right for a proper Philly Cheesesteak challenge. Despite the advice from a local friend that the best cheesesteaks are found in the more incognito establishments, I chose ground zero of the city’s famous steaks, 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia, home to the Coke and Pepsi of Philly Cheesteaks, Geno’s and Pat’s.
I’ll save the culinary review of the rival cheesesteaks for another article at another time, however I will describe them in one word – underwhelming. Inevitable, I suppose, having allowed myself to succumb to the grilled rib eye and onions hype. (As a final note regarding the strictly gastronomical experience of the Philly cheesesteak, I had another on the way out of the city a few days later at one of those unassuming spots my local friend has recommended, and he was spot on. The steak there was as tasty as any I have ever had.)
I will say this however about my dining experience at Geno’s. A few bites into my steak, while my mind and eyes wandered unimpressed by the flavors in my mouth, I scanned the bright, neon gaudy design and décor. Upon reading some of the signs posted about the walk-up service window where one orders, I literally lost my appetite.
Intolerant declarations such as, “This is America, when ordering ‘Speak English’”, and others disturbed me enough to take the rest back to sales the window and explain to the cashier that not only was the steak uninspired and mediocre at best, but that having read said signs while eating it, and while recognizing their right to express themselves freely, I couldn’t bring myself to finish it and support their business anymore than I already had, and would never return again to Geno’s, thank you very much.
Now, I was hungry, very hungry, and to react so boldly on an empty stomach was a precedent for me. Money and hunger be damned. I was upset, and my moral compass simply pointed away from Geno’s. In an era of increasing political disenfranchisement – perhaps tempered somewhat by Obamamania — one of the few ways us non-millionaires can express ourselves politically is via the power of the purse. Or, in laymen terms, put your money where your mouth (and heart and mind) is. And in this case, I could, and I did.
No ill will against Geno’s, but c’mon, really?
In addition to a very worthwhile visit to the “disturbingly informative” Mütter Museum, home to various human anatomical and medical oddities, the only other touristy destination I sought out was another museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But, not for the worldclass collection of art inside the museum. Not Cezanne, neither Matisse nor Gehry. Nope, my friend and I were after something else entirely, and a very different kind of artist – Rocky.
Not Rocky the Flying Squirrel, but the Italian Stallion himself. And protagonist of one of the most iconic scenes in all of cinema, the Rocky Steps scene. Cue “Gonna Fly Now”. Enter Rocky Balboa during one of his training runs, grey sweatsuit on, hoodie hanging over his black beanie. He leaps up the many steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, reaches the top, turns to face Eavins Oval, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and City Hall in the background. Arms raised in triumph, cinematic history is made.
I’m not that much of a Rocky guy myself, but I must confess to having felt a little Rocky-inspired tingle while I was there. And to demonstrate just how much the Rocky underdog story resonates with the globally, the Rocky Steps are actually one of the most visited tourist sites in Philadelphia, and wannabe Rockys can be seen running the steps more often than not.
I saw them when I was there, silly, but entertaining. And probably more so than the Liberty Bell. – Alvaro Eduardo Rojas
Images: iStock Photo, NYMag, OLPA, Greensboring and BillyTFried